The loss of a pet can easily be compared to the loss of your own human child. It leaves an emptiness and feelings of hopelessness. Some people feel more closely connected to their pets than the humans around them while others feel it is their canine companions that complete their lives. The loss of a human does bring about those emotional pains of grieving, but many pet owners who have gone through the process of both human and pet loss will often say the pain from their departed pet is equal to or exceeds that of a human.
The grieving process for that of a furry family member really is not much different from that of losing a human that is close to us, but there are indeed differences. Those who do not feel the connection to your pet or even their own may think you are over reacting or just an emotional person. They may suggest replacing the pet you just lost, or even go as far as rudely tell you, “Get over it! It’s just a dog!” A pet lover knows the pain you are going through and can offer more support than non-pet lovers around you. Finding a support group can be a great relief, so you can tell your story and receive honest and truthful sympathy from others who feel the same way. Support groups aren’t always an option depending on your location, though, and it is important that you fully understand that what you are feeling is a normal reaction to the traumatic event of losing your precious furry friend.
While some pets may live as long as 20 or more years, most are still with us for only a brief time. The average life span of a dog is 10 to 12 years and an incredibly small portion of their human families are with their dogs from the beginning of their lives. Adopted and rescued dogs often make it to their permanent homes in adulthood and sometimes not even until they reach their seniors. This makes their time with us, the ones who love and care for them every day, that much shorter. When the time does come for either euthanasia or a pet passes away from disease or injury our emotions, and even our daily lives, are taken on a roller coaster of emotions. We can move from guilt to comfort, to bargaining to depression, to thinking of the future to feeling like giving up completely. It is all normal.
The well known steps of grieving follow as denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While this is a neatly laid out plan of recovery that most people go through, it normally is not as straight forward as the list makes it seem. Denial often occurs before death actually takes place, and sometimes carries on beyond even that. Ever had a pet in which long after they passed away you still thought you saw them out of the corner or your eye? Or maybe they laid down in one specific spot and you were used to stepping over them in the dark, and still do when they’re no longer there? You are still coping and learning to live without your pet.
Denial is an emotionally easy route for someone with an elderly or terminally ill dog. It’s not uncommon to hear of owners coming into the vet office may days or even weeks after their senior dog had begun showing signs of distress or illness. The owner simply does not want to accept that their pet’s life is on borrowed time and their lives together are nearing an end. Denial is normal human behavior and a way of protecting ourselves emotionally.
Anger can quickly take the place of denial once facts have been faced. This anger can be pushed onto the vet that could not extend the dog’s life, or the driver of the car who struck him. Anger is followed by the bargaining stage, or could easily be rolled up in with the anger stage. Bargaining involves the thought process of, “If only I did this differently, or sought medical help sooner.” Focusing on hindsight, some of which may not even be applicable to the situation takes of your mind, and feelings of guilt ensue.
Depression tends to numb your emotions for a while. You no longer find any joy in the things you once did. Perhaps everything around you reminds you of your lost canine and you want nothing to do with these memories. Depression, like denial, protects us from that horrible pain of seeing the empty dog bed and no one eating from the dish on the floor. Instead of feeling the loss, you feel more like a piece of yourself is gone as well, and is irretrievable. The depression stage tends to last the longest, even up to a few years after the passing of our pets.
Acceptance of the death of a dog is the final stage in which we can move on with our lives and look forward to the future. There is no one thing that can push us past the difficult process of grieving our lost pets so that we can reach this light at the end of the tunnel sooner. However, just knowing that the end of the intense emotional pain is there, somewhere, in your future can help some.
When our pet is near death or has already passed on we may expressed thoughts of never owning another dog again because losing them is just too painful. We may feel the need to honor their short life with us on this planet in some way that will do well in the world. There are pet rescues out there in the world created with the mind set of honoring one animal who passed away, along with other good deeds to help others. Moving on involves learning to live without your dog there by your side, but remembering his presence in your life.
Seeking closure, for some pet owners, can be as simple as burying their beloved dog in the backyard with his own headstone. Others may decide on cremation and keeping their ashes in a decorative urn with a photo memorializing the good times they had together. Along with these, another way pet lovers find to move forward with their lives of experience such a loss is to adopt another pet and work towards their new future with a new friend.
Not everyone is always ready to adopt a pet right away. Some people may take a few weeks, months or even years before making another emotional and financial commitment of bringing home a canine buddy. When that time does come, though, you should keep in mind not to rush it along. Remember your pet you lost, but do not try to replace him or her. Avoid adopting a dog that looks like him. In fact, make an attempt to adopt a dog of a different breed and gender if you can. You don’t want to set yourself up for more heartbreak when you adopt a dog just like your last one, and has a completely different personality. You want your new pet to bring new and unique memories just like your last one did. See him as an individual, not a replacement.
Losing your best friend can feel terrifying, heartbreaking, and make you question many decisions you have made in your life during the grieving process. But all hope is not lost! Give yourself a break, and let your emotions heal as you feel they need to. Don’t rush it! Grieve as long as you need, as you have just gone through a traumatic event in your life that has potentially changed even your daily life. Pamper yourself a little, and move on when you’re ready. There are different methods of honoring/memorializing your dog which can also help you work through the whole process.